Judge says the information related to investigations is covered by secrecy

India’s efforts to get information from Italy on the Rs. 3,600-crore VVIP helicopter deal, mired in allegations of kickbacks to the tune of Rs. 362 crore, received a jolt on Saturday as an Italian court rejected New Delhi’s request for documents related to investigations, citing grounds that the information was covered by secrecy.

Keeping a close watch on the developments, Defence Minister A.K. Antony, who is on a visit to Meghalaya, asked Defence Secretary Shashi Kant Sharma to send a senior Joint Secretary of the Ministry to Italy to “gather as much evidence as possible” relating to the allegations of corruption in the acquisition of 12 helicopters for the elite communication squadron of the Indian Air Force from Italian firm Finmeccanica’s subsidiary AgustaWestland, U.K. Joint Secretary Arun Kumar Bal, who has been looking after Air Acquisitions in the Defence Ministry, is likely to travel to Italy on Monday, official sources said on Saturday.

In its efforts to get authenticated details and documents, the Indian embassy in Rome made the request on February 13 after the arrest of Finmeccanica CEO Giuseppe Orsi on charges that kickbacks were paid in the chopper deal, the sources said. The embassy received a communication on Saturday from the Judge of Preliminary Investigations of the Tribunal Busto Arsizio Luca Labianca stating that it was “not possible to give a positive reply” to the Indian request, the sources said.

In the letter, the judge said: “The investigations are, in fact, at a preliminary stage, during which, as per Article 329 of code of Penal Procedure, all information is covered by secrecy. Only parties and their lawyers are allowed to have access to the information and documents.” However, the judge told the embassy that his office would consider a “fresh request” from the Indian side once the secrecy obligations into the matter got over.

Under attack from its political opponents, as the coming budget session of Parliament is barely a week away, the UPA government has already ordered a CBI probe into the case and has initiated the process to scrap the chopper deal. On Friday, the Defence Ministry issued a show-cause notice to the Italian firm, asking it to reply within a week why the deal should not be cancelled in view of the allegations of pay offs and use of influence in bagging the deal in February 2010. A CBI team as well as some officials from the External Affairs Ministry are also likely to travel to Italy next week, the sources said.

Meanwhile, AgustaWestland said on Saturday that it was preparing to clarify the points raised by the Indian government.

“AgustaWestland clarifies that Indian authorities have not cancelled the contract but have requested some clarifications within seven days. AgustaWestland is preparing its answer to timely meet the Indian authorities’ request,” the firm said in a release. Referring to the probe in Italy, it said: “AgustaWestland is confident that the full compliance with the law of its conduct and the conduct of its past and present senior executives and managers will be demonstrated soon.”

“For 2011, AgustaWestland is a company with approximately 4 billion euro annual revenue and with an order book of approximately 12 billion euro, including future deliveries of more than 600 helicopters and 300 helicopter kits,” it said, adding that the “success is based on the expertise, skills and dedication of the company’s workforce as well as on the breadth of its research capability, manufacturing base, supply chain and, of course, the quality of its products.”

In yet another development, Mr. Orsi denied knowing the family of the former Air Force Chief, S.P. Tyagi, in the ongoing investigations in Italy.

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